29.3.2017 | 23:12
According to the Icelandic press (links a; b; c and d) the new British Ambassador to Iceland, Michael Nevin, twitted about a large yellow casket which he recently received from London. Yesterday Mr. Nevin revealed to the Icelandic public the contents of the big box. In the casked were two oil paintings from 1790 with Icelandic motifs.
The yellow box containing the two paintings has arrived under the curious eyes of Jón Stefánsson Milkmaid (1921). The photography on the Edwardian dresser is of Ambassador Nevin after having delivered his Diplomatic credentials to the Icelandic president Guđni Th. Jóhannesson.
The two paintings, used to hang in the British Embassy in Reykjavík, but were sent to London some 10 years ago for repair at the Government Art Collection GAC (not the National Gallery like the Icelandic media reported). Before they were returned to Reykjavík last week, they went on exhibition in the Whitechapel Gallery in London, as well as in Birmingham and Ulster. For a while, the painting ornated the walls of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, at Nobel House, Smith Square in London. But now they are back "home", where they are appreciated more than at an odd meeting on Fine British food and rural affairs, i.e. The Naked Cook and River Cottege.
GAC 4822: The New Geyser, (Icel. Strokkur) a geysir which awoke after an earthquake in 1789. It lost its power in 1896 to reawake in 1963.
The Paintings, showing the famous Icelandic hydrothermal feature Geysir as well as Strokkur in Haukadalur S-Iceland, are entitled The Great Geyser (GAC 4821)and The New Geyser (GAC 4822). They were painted by Edward Dayes (1763-1804), seen here to the left, who was a well known London artist albeit mostly known for his watercolours.
In May 1789, encouraged by the naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, John Thomas Stanley (later first Baron Stanley of Alderley) set off from Leith on an expedition to Iceland. His intention was to research the island with his team of 26 experts and assistants. He returned with a collection of dried plants and numerous sketches drawn by Stanley himself or by other crew members. Edward Dayes and Nicholas Pocock were then commissioned to prepare completed drawings and etchings from these amateur studies. Both of the paintings that have now been returned to the UK embassy in Reykjavík base on sketches by the Stanley-expedition skilful draftsmen, and are quite similar to stone-prints made from the same drawings (see below). (See here for more information on Forleifur about Stanley in Iceland)
In 1958 the paintings were bought at a Christie's auction in London from a private collection. They were were bought by Frank T. Sabin Art Dealers in Shaftesbury Avenue, London for the Ministry of Works. After the auction in November 1958 they were listed by the British government Art Collection as:
'The Property of a Nobleman'; by whom sold through Christie's, London, 'Pictures by Old Masters' sale, on 28 November 1958
(Lot 97), as 'The Great Geyser' and 'The New Geyser, Iceland'.
Let us hope that the paintings will hang in the British Embassy in Reykjavík for a long time to come. They are such an important source to Icelandic life in the late 18th century, in an age when Iceland hardly had a painter, except for the autistic Sćmundur Hólm (see here and here in Icelandic), who drew or painted fictive Icelandic motifs which he sold to Danish patrons. Later this year, I hope to take a closer look at the two paintings in the British Embassy in Reykjavík, if I may.
Here are some interesting details from two of the two paintings just returned back 'home': Have a look at the fantastic brass quadrant with a small telescope, fixed on a tripod. They don't make instruments like that anymore.
Thanks: The author would like to thank Andrew Parratt, curator at the GAC in London, for helpful information.
Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, March 2017.